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|July 9 - July 15, 2009
• Composition and quality
Boulder’s Alba is as smooth as Sinatra
by Clay Fong
• The Dessert Diva
A local chef shares her sweet secrets
by Danette Randall
The debate over an American cuisine definition continues
by Bill Daley
Frankly, it depends whom you ask. We’ve posed the question to cutting-edge chefs, revered authors, hungry hell-raisers and ordinary folks. Their answers ranged from broad statements about what we eat in general across the country to regional cooking styles such as Carolina barbecue to specific foods such as fried chicken, hamburgers and steaks. No one agreed with anyone else. The lack of consensus reminded us of Justice Potter Stewart’s classic definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. And even that old adage was gently challenged.
“In a sense, you know it when you don’t see it,” e-mailed Peter Liem, a senior correspondent and wine critic for Wine & Spirits magazine based in the Champagne region of France. “Living in Europe has convinced me, ironically, that the most dynamic, progressive and quality-conscious movements in food are happening in the U.S.”
The James Beard Foundation pursued the question of the national diet in a 2008 survey, “The State of American Cuisine.” It found our “national cuisine exists in a regional form.” Survey responders said what makes “American cuisine a cuisine is precisely its disunity. American cuisine morphs, adapts, borrows, creates and roots itself where people enjoy it.”
Backing the regional cuisine idea is Judy Rogers, chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. She thinks the United States is too big and too varied for a single cuisine.
“I don’t think there are coherent, consistent givens on how you are going to approach cooking that are universally American, that would apply in Alaska and apply in Florida,” she said.
Betty Fussell, the food writer and author, believes our food today is rooted in our cultural history, particularly in the waves of immigrants who began arriving, and adapting, in the 19th century.
“We’re open to the new, to fusion, to the casual, fast and impromptu,” she said. “We are willing to be the opposite of traditional. We’re willing to experiment with flavors.”
Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of the cutting-edge wd-50 restaurant in Manhattan, has made his reputation doing just that.
“What I like about the term ‘American cuisine’ is that it can encompass ingredients and techniques from around the world because that’s what it is,” he added. “To say ‘American,’ ‘New American,’ ‘Contemporary American,’ means it can be Japanese ingredients prepared with Spanish techniques.”
Dufresne has just begun serving an international riff on the traditional French confit of duck. He’s reshaping the bird and serving it with Thai palm seeds dressed in calamansi, a citrus especially popular in the Philippines, and a corn pudding made from freeze-dried sweet corn and microwaved popcorn, two indigenous foods. Then, in a nod to Italy, there’s a lovage pesto on the plate.
“It’s a dish encompassing several different cultures. To me, that’s very American,” Dufresne said.
For an ex-pat such as Liem, this ability to cross cuisines and flavors is a terribly important American skill.
“Americans have access to a staggering diversity of foodstuffs from around the world, a luxury that most people don’t appreciate, and more importantly, they understand what to do with them in a way that nobody else does,” he wrote. “Look at what atrocities French chefs commit with cumin or lemongrass. It’s not fusion that I’m talking about. It’s something entirely original.”
Agreeing with Liem is Christophe Bakunas, owner of Local Wine Co., a Midwest-based development, sales and marketing company representing artisan wines from California, Oregon and Washington.
“I think American cuisine is already here, just like American wine,” he said.
“Can we stop being so afraid of branding our own gastronomic prowess and stop referencing our food and wine back to Europe? Do we have to wait another 200 years before we say we have terroir (a sense of place)? Before we say we have regional farming? I say it’s here already.”
The people have spoken
Is there an American cuisine? Results of a 2007 James Beard Foundation Taste America survey:
Yes: 90.8 percent
No: 9.2 percent
If there is an American cuisine, how would you define it? Top five answers from the Beard Foundation survey:
1. Region or regional
4. Melting pot
Beyond apple pie
Iconic American foods, in order of popularity:
1. Hamburgers and cheeseburgers
3. Fried chicken
4. Mac ‘n’ cheese
5. Apple pie
SOURCE: 2007 James Beard Foundation’s Taste America Survey
—MCT, Chicago Tribune.
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